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literature

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Proust, Marcel (1871-1922)  
 
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Roland Barthes and the Question of Ironic Distance

In order to restore one's complete respect for the book, it may be useful both to approach Proust du côté de chez Roland Barthes, and to look out for signs of the ironic distance between Proust and his self-portrait, Marcel.

Barthes makes some particularly revealing comments on the scene in La Prisonnière when Albertine accidentally lets slip the first half of an obscene expression. She covers her mouth, as if to cram the obscenity back into the silence of her body, but she cannot hope to hide her always very expressive blushes or to censor the eloquence of her sudden speechlessness.

Sponsor Message.

Marcel, her lover and captor and--inasmuch as he keeps confiding in us his doubts about her fidelity and virtue--her betrayer, is at first puzzled by her half-utterance; and when she refuses to complete her sentence, he mentally tries out several possible endings, none of them making sense. When he finally understands what she said, he deduces from it proof that she is lesbian (X, 185-188).

Roland Barthes comments that Marcel is horrified, "for it is the dreaded ghetto of female homosexuality, of crude cruising, which is suddenly revealed thereby: a whole scene through the keyhole of language."

One has to assume that Barthes is taking a characteristically ironic step beyond the common view of A la recherche as a roman à clef. If there is a key to this novel, we are invited not to turn it, but to remove it and peek through the hole. This phrase, "the keyhole of language" (le trou de serrure du langage), is what impresses one as going straight to the heart of Proust's method.

Of course, Barthes is preparing the ground for a conventional post-structuralist reading of the book as an unstable text open to an infinity of subjective readings, based on a free discourse between writer and reader.

His point about the "keyhole of language" has a general application, in so far as when we read fiction and "see images" of fictional characters, we are not looking through the author's eyes or the narrator's eyes at an existing and complete reality; we are not holding up a mirror to an already detailed scene, nor are we looking into a mirror held by author or narrator.

What flashes and fragments we "see," or imagine we see, we see through and in the medium of the language in which they are presented to us. This may be mildly interesting as a general proposition; but, applied to Proust, it has more particular and literal reference to narrative technique and our readings of it.

To understand and enjoy the Recherche, one must have an ear for gossip--not merely in order to follow up the real-life equivalencies of Proust's characters and events--that is, not to treat the book as autobiography and biography, a grand Soap Opera based on a true story.

The book is that, to be sure; and, as such, it is actually an act of gossip. (It is clear from Proust's letters that he held a gossip's view of the upper reaches of French society. Samuel Beckett called the Proust of the letters a "garrulous old dowager.") But that may be its least compelling aspect.

The Narrative Mode in Proust

More interesting are the technical aspects of the matter, the way the book is narrated: For it is here that Proust really innovates as a gay writer.

The usual narrative mode in Proust involves the relaying--with rhetorical flourishes and personal opinions of varying relevance--of information gained either by hearsay and eavesdropping, or by the visual observation of a partially obstructed scene (between figures across the distances of a drawing room; through peepholes; between the curtain and the window frame; and so on). Most of Marcel's information comes to him incomplete. His inferences and inventions fill the gaps, in the best tradition of gossip.

Marcel is an obsessive detective of secrets, a follower of the minutest clues. (In a sense, since he learns everything piecemeal, all the information he absorbs functions as a clue to the final picture.)

He is most consistently involved in the great Gay Soap Opera quandary of wondering Is-he-or-isn't-he? and Is-she-or-isn't-she? That is to say, which of the other characters are homosexual?

Although he wishes to be known as a heterosexual, innocent of such affairs, Marcel claims to know all the little secret signs that mean "perversion." He finds visible, physical signs of homosexuality, generally based around the loins.

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